Writing Dialogue: 10 Tips to Help You (video) - Mark Crilley

Dialogue serves many purposes in a story. It establishes characters and their relationships to each other. It also helps to set the tone and further the plot.

Here are a few tips to make sure your dialogue is up to par:

  • Be wary of the amount of text you have per page. It’s very easy to overload your reader with excessive amounts of text. Doing so also tends to clog up a page, leaving little room for the art to express itself. Of course you can break any of the below rules intentionally to make things look claustrophobic or cluttered.

    • As a general rule, you don’t want more than 200 words per page. This means if you have two panels, stick to 100 words max for each. Three panels, ~70 words max per panel. Six panels, ~35 words max… Obviously that number is arbitrary, so just keep and eye out for overly wordy sections as you script and lay out your pages.

    • Similarly, keep to a max of 30 words per balloon. Bloating any one balloon with dialogue doesn’t look great in my opinion, and can be intimidating for the reader. When I’m reading, I tend to gloss over any dialogue that rambles on for too long.

    • Also, having more than 3 balloons per panel will generally make things look really busy.

  • Very similar to the above point, the number of words in a scene/page/panel will determine the pacing of that scene/page/panel. Comics aren’t movies. In a movie, each scene takes the same amount of time to complete, no matter who’s watching it. In comics, pacing is dictated by how long it takes to read the scene, and that differs from person to person based on reading speed. There is one point of consistency though: the more words in a page, the longer it takes for a reader to get through that page, and therefore the slower the pacing of the scene. In general you want to match the amount of text you use to the pacing of each scene. It’s why action scenes tend to have fewer and shorter dialogue balloons. Having to read a hundred words in one panel would slow the scene down to a standstill, and that’s exactly what action scenes want to avoid.

  • Determine the motivation of every character in the scene. In general, characters should have an underlying reason for acting or saying the things they say. Maybe they want to persuade someone. Maybe they want to support a friend. Maybe they just want to be left alone. Their dialogue should reflect this. Note that your characters can have multiple motivations, even ones that conflict with each other. Regardless, by understanding what your characters want, you can ensure they act consistently, in a way that pursues one or multiple of those desires.

  • Understand how your text will look when placed on the page. While you might not be lettering your comic yourself, it’s still important to visualize how your dialogue will fit in each panel. Check out the chapter on lettering for related tips.

  • Avoid repeating the same word too much. Using the same word over and over makes your text boring to read and makes that word awkwardly stand out. Everyone has their words that they repeat more than they should. One of mine is “just”. To fix this, do a search (ctrl + f in your word document) for words you think you might be overusing throughout your book and replace them with synonyms. Here’s a good crowd sourced thesaurus to help you pick words.

  • Grammar! Know how and when to use punctuation. Avoid run-on and fragmented sentences. If you have a narrator, make sure they consistently stick to one tense. Consistently do, or do not use the Oxford comma. Double check your spelling. When in doubt, get a copy editor.

  • Dialogue doesn’t need to sound like a real life conversation. A common misconception is that dialogue in comics needs to function exactly like a real life conversation. Pick up any comic and you’ll realize this simply is not the case. Real conversations often meander around without a clear direction or goal. Having your characters “um” and “ah” for five pages would be boring and a major waste of space. That said…

  • Dialogue should sound natural. Choppy dialogue can really pull a reader out of a scene. The easiest way to test this is by reading the dialogue out loud to yourself. Does it make sense? Does it flow well into the next line?

  • Be concise. You have a very limited amount of space in your comic for dialogue so you want to be as efficient as possible. There are a few ways to achieve this:

    • If a line of dialogue isn’t conveying something to the reader, either about the story, the setting, the tone, or the characters, cut it. Writers sometimes think they have to show absolutely every moment of a story. This just isn’t true. Small talk between characters that adds nothing for the reader is just a waste of space. On the other hand, small talk that helps establish your characters and their relationship to each other, is not.

    • Don’t say the same thing multiple times. It’s redundant and it wastes space to repeat yourself unnecessarily. Saying something the exact same way but with different words doesn’t add anything to the story and just clogs up your page. There’s no need to convey the same information twice to a reader. (See what I’m doing here?)

    • Start your dialogue at, or right before, the important moment. You don’t have to show your reader an entire conversation if it doesn’t actually add anything useful. Get right to the good stuff or risk boring your readers.

  • Characters should have a unique voice. Just like real people, your characters should each sound like their own person. If everyone has the same dialogue quirks and uses the same phrases, your characters will feel boring and samey. For example, if one of your characters is highly sophisticated, they probably wouldn’t use slang words when they talk, whereas a kid raised on the street may use them all the time. Once you figure out the voice of your characters, keep that voice consistent.

Avoiding the Info dump

This is the mistake I see writers make the most. Writers like to have their characters explain absolutely everything to each other as a means of informing the reader. This is known as the dreaded info dump and tends to end up boring your readers. The info dump can usually be spotted by the use of phrases like “as you know…”.

There are a few things to note when it comes to exposition:

  • You don’t have to tell your reader everything. Have a little faith that people will be able to figure things out without all the little details. A little ambiguity leaves room for the imagination of the reader to run wild with ideas. Let them do the hard work while you focus on what makes your story interesting. This will also engage your reader as they attempt to piece everything together. I really like the iceberg analogy. Allude to a massive, exciting world, but only reveal the tip of it to the reader.

  • Replace your exposition with imagery. Comics are a visual medium and so the “show don’t tell” rule applies well here. Not only does imagery convey the same point in a more interesting manner, it’s also more likely to convince the reader. Which do you think would have more impact: having two characters talk about Steve being a jerk, or actually showing Steve doing something mean to one of the characters? Having someone rant on for two pages about the class divide of a city, or designing your city with a hard line between upper class homes and the city slums so the reader can see for themselves the contrasting lifestyles?

  • If you absolutely NEED to tell the audience something in conversation, make it sound believable. Your dialogue doesn’t have to be realistic but it does have to sound natural. Would your characters actually talk that way? Again, avoid those “As you know…” monologues.

  • Mask necessary exposition with an interesting setting or event. Having two characters stand in an empty room and blab on and on about their backstory is boring. Having them do that same exposition dump while being chased by a mutant t-rex is less boring.